To those who know him well, Mike Bell is the "foam man."
The nickname was bestowed in jest, but it's the nicest compliment the Tulsa businessman could hope for.
At his company, Creative Packaging Inc., Bell sells hundreds of different packing materials.
The Tulsa native is also the innovative mind behind every unique request for packaging containers. In other words, Bell invents the things customers need to ship, store and display almost everything under the sun.
From the simplest plastic poly bag to the more complicated aspects of polyurethane, polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene foam, Bell said Creative Packaging can handle any project.
Who would have believed there are that many kinds of foam in the world? But their varying properties can fill any number of packing specifications.
"They all have different cushioning characteristics, and they all do different things," Bell said.
Polyurethane soaks up water, but polyethylene doesn't. Polystyrene floats, making it the perfect material for boat docks and home spa covers. And polyethylene is the foam of choice for a local museum that uses it for storing fragile pottery.
Cushioning and protective foam has an indefinite number of uses, but it's just part of what the company supplies. "We try to be like a Wal-Mart to our customers," said operations manager Patricia Meek, explaining that Creative Packaging's goal is to provide everything any company might need.
"Then customers don't have to call one person for a box and another for tape," Meek said. "We're like a packaging supermarket -- that's what customers like."
Bell thrives on being everything to everyone.
After 12 years in real estate and five years working as a sales representative for another packaging company, he decided to start his own company in 1990 with a $20,000 loan from his father.
His selling expertise was already established -- "I'm a natural-born salesperson, even as a child," Bell said -- and he was fascinated by the dynamics of consumable products.
"It's the never-ending prospect of selling things people need every day," he said.
Business grew along with each unique packaging request, and as different materials were added to Creative Packaging's inventory.
"People would say, `Here's my product. I need to ship it and have it arrive in one piece,' " Bell said.
And for 25 years, that's what he has done.
When Bell isn't selling his imaginative services to prospective customers or discussing an idea with clients, he is devising new methods of packing machine parts and sensitive electronics.
Part of that process can include dozens of endurance tests, where Bell drops a product hundreds of times until a specially crafted container survives the impact with no damage to what's inside.
"This is what I love to do," he said.
Bell moved the company into its 20,000- square-foot site on Charles Page Boulevard at the end of 2000, picking the industrial neighborhood as one means of keeping costs down for customers.
The abundant space allows ample storage room for huge rolls of bubble wrap, giant sheets of corrugated cardboard, shelves of poly sheeting and bags, and towering stacks of white, black and pink foam.
The move also made room for equipment that came with the purchase of another Tulsa company that same year.
The acquisition of Davis International added about 100 customers to Creative Packaging's client base, but most importantly, it gave Bell the capacity to make more products on site with machines that cut boxes to size, slice foam into different thicknesses, and die-cut foam into varying forms.
Yet Bell is so involved in designing and inventing -- his latest creation is a foam-filled "hail blanket" to protect cars and trucks during severe weather -- that he needs to add several experienced packaging sales representatives to his staff of six in-house employees.
"We're looking to grow," he said -- a rarity these days in an economy that has companies downsizing and cutting jobs.
"It's a great business to be in, because the need for the products we sell is go great."